How the Indian system, society works against rape survivors

Eight years ago, a family walked into my office late in the evening. A couple and their three children. The man was visually challenged. But persistent, insistent and firm that he would not go without being heard. The family had just found out that their 8-year-old daughter had been sexually abused by his sister's brother-in-law in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. The police would not register a case and the agonised, traumatised and angry parents had come seeking help.

The next morning I and my colleague accompanied the family to a police station near their home in Hyderabad after a phone call to the city’s police commissioner. He had assured me that irrespective of where the crime was committed, the FIR could be registered in any police station. Forewarned by his higher-ups, the station officer was now ready to register a case as soon as we got there.

The procedure itself was still an ordeal, specially for the child who was already shy, conscious, withdrawn, afraid. Half a dozen curious pairs of eyes of strangers were following her as she related what had happened in her broken, childish way.

"See, it is not going to be easy at all, for your daughter or you people. Everyone will ask all sorts of questions," the officer in-charge 'counselled', trying to dissuade the family from registering the case. But the father was firm. His innocent daughter had been wronged, he wanted justice and punishment for the culprit.

A protester taunts the police during a protest calling for better safety for women following the rape of a student last week, in front the India Gate. AFP

'Uncle’ would play with them, sometimes give some money to 'bhaiyya’ and send him out of the house to get some stuff from the market and also to buy himself and his sister some toffees, biscuits or other snacks from the market. 'Uncle’ had said it was part of the game to lie down on her and stuff like that. A couple of weeks ago, it seems, he had gone too far in his 'games' badly hurting the girl, leaving her scared, confused, in tears.

He had warned her not to reveal what happened to anyone else, threatening her and trying to bribe her. He told her that everyone would call her a bad child. And then she and her brother would be punished, taken out of school. The child fell ill and that is when the parents brought the children home for the summer holidays. The mother noticed the child was withdrawn, scared, said she doesn’t want to go back to the aunt's home and was breaking into tears after screaming in fear in her sleep. Soon the mother discovered the worst.

As the paper work was being completed, I noticed this child sitting alone staring from a distance as she watched her siblings play in the area outside, by the side of the police station. She looked alone, isolated by the burden of her experiences.

Next was the medical examination at a local government hospital. After hours and hours of wait, "woh rape case kaun hain?" is how the nurse called out when the child was finally taken in for examination. Sensitivity, confidentiality, those are not issues you are expected to fuss or bother about in India, specially if you have come out to report rape.

Days and months and years passed by. Every once in a while, the father would call me, come and see me, seeking some guidance or help and giving updates. It was a long, protracted battle during which the family, both the child and her parents, had to face many, many battles. Relatives ostracised the family. There was tremendous pressure from the sister and her in-laws to agree to a 'compromise' and save the family honour. But the couple was focused on the battle to get justice. Everything else, every other issue, became secondary for the family.

For a man who earned his living travelling around, singing bhajans, each time to follow up on the case in a court in Yavatmal, getting the government doctor in Hyderabad who examined the child to travel and physically appear in court was not easy. My colleague and I would often feel frustrated and have even asked him why he should not take the monetary compensation that was being offered and spare his daughter the torture of reliving the nightmare every time by talking repeatedly about the case. But the father was adamant. I must admit I had no choice but to admire his grit and determination to fight the legal case and get justice from the courts.

But God in his own little ways does help those who fight their battles. A young man, Saurabh, a software engineer who had seen the report on television got in touch with us and through us, the family, for some reason decided to treat this almost as his own battle. He helped the father file cases in the human rights commission, file RTI queries to get hold of the medical report and seek progress reports, and took out time to accompany the father to the place of trial and get legal counsel. Are there really selfless and good people like that, we would often wonder. So far we have had no reason to think otherwise about him and were glad to meet someone like him.

Meanwhile, the child was unable to continue in school and became a dropout. The mother had decided she would not let any of her children stay away from her, specially the girls. So the children were pulled out of the school in Yavatmal. But her visually challenged husband would need help. So the son eventually got pulled out of school to be his father’s strength and travel around with him. The daughters were admitted in a new English medium school in Hyderabad but with a case going on and frequent trips to the police station, the neighbourhood came to know and eventually everyone in school. The children were not able to continue.

We tried to put the children in a government residential school in another part of the city, away from prying eyes and taunting words. The mother was afraid to leave her daughters alone but she understood that school was important for her children. I don’t know if it was due to the insecurity instilled by events of the past or not-so-welcome conditions at the hostel, the girls came back home unable to cope.

A traumatic event like this scars and haunts you through life. And you need tremendous courage to stand up and face the world. For that you need sustained and professional support and counselling, both of which the child did not get. The girl was now a pretty 14-year-old. She had always been a bright girl but there was a feeling of lack of self-worth and 'shame and ignominy’ that made it difficult for her to face the world courageously. And there were enough people waiting to exploit that vulnerability. They presumed she must be easy target.

A man in the neighbourhood assaulted the girl at her home when she was alone. When the mother returned, she raised a stink. Already embittered by harrowing experiences, she decided she was not going to take this lying down yet again. The man's family put the blame on the girl, calling her a "loose'' character. The parents of the girl approached me and the police. The man's family realised matters were getting out of hand and as a compromise it was agreed that the man would marry the girl.

The girl was not even 15 yet. The father reasoned with me that incidents like this would probably continue, the taunts and the pressures. How long could they 'protect' the daughter? Maybe it was best for her to be married off, when someone was willing. I told them I could not support this child marriage and that too, to another rapist, but I was not able to stop them either. So I stepped back to let it happen.

One precondition of the in-laws was that the case should not be discussed any longer. From what I hear, I suspect the girl has little status and no negotiating power in her new home. Already, she was being threatened that she would be sent back, abandoned by her husband, if she asked questions or demanded dignity and rights as a wife or daughter-in-law. She must be grateful the man had even 'agreed’ to marry her 'despite everything’.

More than eight years have passed. The battle was won by the family in the lower sessions court but then the accused took the case to higher courts, now it is in the Supreme Court. In the week that the Delhi gangrape happened, another 'tareeq’ had passed.

A lifelong struggle for the father and mother which has not ended to this day. We often counsel people to report rape and fight legal battles. I sometimes wonder if the family and girl would have been better off if her parents had decided to 'hide’ the rape and live their life. Is the battle for justice really worth it? When it defeats and breaks even the bravest among us?